There is something that unifies each church. That something should be Jesus, of course, but there is usually also something else. And that something else will always try to displace our first union with Christ, becoming – in the words of Paul from the book of Galatians – another gospel instead. If our first union is not because of Christ, we will instead find union in something else, something that will subtly but surely try to replace the gospel of Jesus Christ as our ultimate allegiance and unity.
The aftermath of contentious elections is typically followed by calls for national unity, calls to heal the divisions exposed by the electoral process. Will it be so in the aftermath of this election? Early returns are not very good, as the parties seem girded to embrace battle, not unity for our nation. What will it mean and what will it take to reunify a badly splintered body politic in the United States? That is a question far beyond me, one for better minds and those more trained in the political world. Can our nation even be reunified? I do not know.
But this election has not just split our country. Whoever the winner will be – unclear at the time of writing this article – Tuesday marked an election that split churches and families. And whether or not the nation can heal and unify, the church must. Jesus gives us no choice:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20–26, ESV)
Why can the church of Jesus Christ not maintain this unity? We fail to maintain unity in Christ because other things are, in the moment, more important to us than the unity Jesus prays. If you study missiology, you uncover what is called the “homogenous unit principle.” Any group of humans will have something that gives it unity. Otherwise it will fly apart. With any group you study, you can find a homogenous factor, something that holds it together, that gives it unity. Even groups of non-conformists, where everyone is determined to be different, have this, too. It is simply that the homogenous unit is the desire to be different. The question is never “is this group unified?” It would not be a group if it weren’t. The question is “unity in what.” In missions, when the gospel gets inside such a homogenous group, it tends to spread quickly, like a wildfire, running through that group. The challenge is that gospel movements usually stop dead when they get to a cultural boundary, whether that boundary is social, economic, political, or other. It takes something far more for the sparks of the gospel fire to jump to a new group; such is the challenging task of cross-cultural missions.
A variant of the homogenous unit principle is true for churches as well. There is something that unifies each church. That something should be Jesus, of course, but there is usually also something else. And that something else will always try to displace our first union with Christ, becoming – in the words of Paul from the book of Galatians – another gospel instead. If our first union is not because of Christ, we will instead find union in something else, something that will subtly but surely try to replace the gospel of Jesus Christ as our ultimate allegiance and unity.
Here is what happens – most Christians would instantly agree that as Christians we have oneness in Jesus first, as seen in the Word (v.20) and modeled in the Trinity (v.21). But then someone says something, or something occurs, or something comes across our phone/FB/Twitter/cable news network, especially something that another Christian did or said or advocated. And we are swept up in disagreement and disgust. How could this person be so blind as to take that political position? Can she not see how idiotic that is? Or how in the world could he listen to that type of music? Or how dare he not wear a mask? Or how dare he say something about the fact he did not wear a mask? And on and on.
We say we want unity in Jesus, but then when the moment occurs, other things sweep us away – we have no self-control. And here is what that shows us – it shows us that our unity is not really in Jesus. When those other things run away with us and we curse other Christians, whether out loud or in our hearts, something else is more important in our hearts than what Jesus prays in John 17. When we can’t imagine even being in church with someone who would believe or do that, when we are ready to question if that person even has faith because they disagree with us on this issue… What that indicates is that we would rather have unity in that other thing than unity in Jesus. What we find is that we Christians have not actually done a good job of maintaining this oneness that Jesus is talking about. We have followed our culture instead of leading it.
Christians are given oneness in Christ. Jesus gives two foundations for oneness, both from God, not us – oneness in the Word (v.20) and oneness in the Trinity (v.21). That means our oneness is centered in what God has done, not what we have done. We ARE different people because of Jesus, by his grace, and because he has made us different people, he has also made us one. When Christ saves us, we are swept into that unity that is true even of him and God the Father, the unity within the Trinity. “That they may ALL be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that he world may believe that you have sent me” (v.21). Jesus is not saying that we become unified with him and with the Father in the sense of becoming divine. We do not become part of God, but we DO have a unity with each other that mimics the unity God has within himself as the Triune God, the Three in One. What happens is that we are unified with Christ, and that makes us unified with each other.